Breakfast conversations at our house go like this: (Me) Sebastian, would you like milk or juice?
(Sebastian) Milk. No, I'd like chocolate milk.
(Sean) Can you say please?
(Me) Here, baby.
(Sebastian) Thanks, Mum.
That's what our conversation means, but here's how it actually goes: (Me) Sebuk, ar tu nori pienuko ar arbatos?
(Sebastian) La-la. Ne, na ki-la-la.
(Sean) Can you say please?
(Me) Cia, baby.
(Sebastian) Merci, Maman.
Each member of our family speaks his or her own tongue. My husband, Sean: English. Me: Lithuanian. And three-year-old Sebastian: a fusion language based on French but mixed with English, Lithuanian and pure "Sebastian."
It can be disorienting. If someone speaks to you in French when you're listening in English, you will only hear gibberish. When this happens, you need to reset your ears and ask the speaker to repeat.
Not long ago, I experienced this with Sebastian. For some time now, he has called hats papeaux (from the French chapeaux), so when he pointed to a snowman and exclaimed "hat, Maman!" it didn't compute. I asked him to repeat himself. He said "hat," again and again, then patting his head, he finally conceded "papeau."
"Oh, hat!" I had been listening in the wrong language.
Learning French in Montreal can be hard. It's difficult not only because Quebec French in no way resembles what is taught in most of English-speaking Canada, but because so many Montreal francophones speak excellent English. At the slightest hesitation in French, a conversation will rapidly shift to English. After this happens a few times, a frustrated anglophone will deem French too hard, the learning process too embarrassing.
We didn't want this for our son. If he was going to grow up in Quebec, French was a must from an early age.
Sebastian's first word was Lithuanian: dar (more). But once he started daycare, encore (pronounced enco-wa) rapidly took its place. Now, two years later, he uses French essentials such as où, qui and là consistently, fleshing out the rest in whatever language makes sense to him.
He wasn't yet 2 when he explicitly chose French as his main language. We were reading an English alphabet book, and he repeated the word "apple" perfectly. Later, before bed, I asked him to say it again. Sebastian shook his head and said "No, pomme." I laughed, then tried Lithuanian, asking if he could say " obuolys" (apple). He laughed once more, and repeated, "No, pomme," more emphatically.
I have no memory of having trouble speaking English. My mother says I learned my two languages (Lithuanian and English - French came later) simultaneously, and that I understood instinctively which to speak to whom. Only rarely did I fuse languages and create hybrid words like Sebastian.
Whereas linguists and psychologists now agree that multilingual children quickly catch up to and often overtake their unilingual peers, in the 1970s, many Canadian teachers encouraged immigrant parents to speak English at home. My mother and father - both teachers, incidentally - ignored this advice, and instituted a strict Lithuanian-only policy in the house that lasted until my father's death, the year I turned 18.
From an early age, I considered my second language valuable and desirable, even if its acquisition wasn't easy. Friday nights were spent preparing homework for Lithuanian Saturday school, where we endured lectures on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and wrestled with complex grammatical exercises. Later, travels to Lithuania and a year of intensive study at a Lithuanian high school in Germany cemented those early lessons.
Even until the day he was born, I wasn't sure that I would speak to Sebastian in Lithuanian. I decided to wait and see what felt natural. In the end, the decision came down to song. Simple melodies calmed my baby, and I know hundreds of Lithuanian songs, far more than I do in English. Most are about village life, love and war. There's one about a vegetable party hosted by a radish, and another about a paper train that Sebastian really likes. It's easy to rhyme in Lithuanian, so even a weak poet like me can improvise, riffing on themes called out mid-song: Bears! No, planes! Bicycles! And so on.
To most people, the advantages of knowing French and English are obvious, but why teach my child Lithuanian? For reasons of memory and continuity. To give him rhymes and rhythms that don't exist in his other two languages. To train his brain now so that he can learn anything later. And to show him that some things are worth doing just because.
I can see that, on some level, he values each of his languages for what they do. One recent bedtime, I asked if he wanted his father or me to cuddle and sing with him. Sebastian answered that he wanted Sean to cuddle, but asked me to sing, since "Daddy can't sing about crabs." He meant that Sean couldn't riff on random topics the way I did, crabs being a current favourite. He's learning that languages, like people, have their talents.
Bedtime conversations in our house go like this: (Sean) Good night, Sebastian, I love you.
(Me) Labanakt, Pupa. As tave myliu.
(Sebastian) Bonne nuit. T'aime aussi.
Julija Sukys lives in Montreal.